2005 MIT Press
Sterling is best known for his work as an author of fictional works within the cyberpunk sci-fi genre, but Shaping Things is a book which largely examines technology, design and sustainability. Sterling is interested in interrogating the types of technological futures we are likely to encounter (a theme which of is of course also central to his fictional works), allied with considering how technological evolution, and the design practices which evolve alongside technologies can provide a future for a civilisation which
‘Can’t go on in their present form. The status quo uses energy and materials which are finite and toxic. They wreck the climate, poison the population and resource wars. They have no future.’ P7
Sterling contends that these problematic technologies can be replaced and their deleterious impacts overcome through the implementation of a technoculture based on SPIMES:
‘Manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly rich and extensive that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES begin and end as data… SPIMES are sustainable, enhanceable, uniquely identifiable and made of substances that can and will be folded back into the production stream of the future.’ P11
Sterling argues that dominant technocultures do not abolish previous technical ensembles, but compost them – perhaps composite may have been a more obvious descriptor, but Sterling’s authorial style is full of entertaining linguistic obscurantisms. Consequently a SPIME based technoculture will not replace the artifacts, machines, products and gizmos that we have today, but will alter the forms or flavours these devices take. As an example, Sterling explores a bottle of wine, and the way in which its barcode and link to a website denote that this bottle of wine is from the gizmo era: it’s still a bottle of wine, but one which contains particular informational affordances based on the dominant technoculture from which it emanates.
This leads onto a discussion of what I would consider to be issues around economies of attention, which Sterling describes as cognitive load in a gizmo society. His conclusions around the slogan ‘everyone can’t be a designer’ and the notion of representative design as an analogue of representative government (and frankly, that means not very representative anything) are politically naïve and really not thoroughly though through.
‘We interact differently in a world with representative design. In particular, with enough informational power, the “invisible hand of the market” becomes visible. The hand of the market was called “invisible” because Adam Smith had very few ways to measure it. Adam Smith lacked Metrics.’ P23
Such a perspective on the market and the information society would have drawn critique as a neoliberal fantasy in 2005 when Shaping Things was published. Coming after the global economic crash in 2008 and the current stagnation/double dip recession/Eurozone crisis the notion that information technology has given financial services industries the ability to predict and control the future is simply farcical, and demonstrates the ideology of neoliberal cyberutopianism which permeates Stirling’s text.
Where Sterling is somewhat more interesting is his thoughts around sustainability and temporality. Arguing that there is no way back to a (utopian) pre-industrial era in which humans lived in harmony with nature, Sterling contends that only through intelligent design practices can a pathway to a sustainable society be found. He contends that rapid prototyping will play a big role in this, casting the process as ‘the exhaustion of the phase space of the problem – it isn’t reasoned, thrifty or rational but it has the brutal efficiency of a chess-playing computer.’ (P48) By exploring different possible solutions, and retaining the data which allows other designers to note which avenues provide dead-ends, Stirling argues that rapid prototyping will allow a kind of distributed, swarm-like intelligence to permeate design practices, creating a synchronic society in which innovation occurs increasingly rapidly. This feeds into a general theme exploring relations between technology and temporality, with Sterling arguing that:
Genuinely radical changes in the human perception of time are not caused by philosophy, but instrumentation. The most radical changes in our temporal outlook come from technological devices, tools of temporal perception: clocks, telescopes, radio-carbon daters, spectrometers. P51
This leads Sterling to reflect that:
We’re in trouble as a culture because we lack firm ideas of where we are in time an what we might do to ensure ourselves a future. We’re also in trouble for technical and practical reasons: because we design build and use dysfunctional hardware… To understand hardware, we need to understand hardware’s engagement with TIME. P54/55
When explicating what he envisions as the origins of SPLIME’s in contemporary culture, Sterling points to RFID tags and the potential to create and Internet of Things based on this type of technology, or more likely future iterations of device which evolve from things like RFID tags or the other sensor/actuator relationships which have become far more common in the half dozen years since the book was released with the explosion of smartphones, tablets and other portable, always-on technologies which come with a range of built in sensors. Sterling also explores some of the potential for 3D printers to revolutionise fabrication processes. These subjects aren’t covered in much depth, but credit must go to Sterling to picking these technologies out as potential game changers very early on in their development.
While peer production, commons and open-source to get a mention, it is only that: a fleeting mention in between other ideas, and one which fails to explore the potentials for redistributing wealth throughout societies based upon these models, but then social equity, and the effects of technological ensembles upon equality is a black hole in Sterling’s book, one which can largely be attributed to the neoliberal economic ideology it propounds. He does argue that:
‘It’s no use starting from the top by ideologically re-educating the Consumer to become some kind of rigid hairshirt Green. This means returning to the benighted status of farmers with artifacts.’ P131
As someone involved in education, I find Sterling’s claims that the process of trying to get people to think about the social and ecological implications of their actions leads to ignorance to be misguided at best. When combined with his notion of representative design and the magical powers of markets when combined with information technology I would consider them to be politically dangerous, suggesting that we forgo education and serious thought and instead simply sit back and allow an enlightened design elite and the market to simply lead us to a sustainable future.
Sterling’s insight into the potentials of emerging technologies is worthy of high praise, and some of his thoughts around time, technology and society is intriguing if somewhat underexplored, and these currently within his work are why he’s become a popular figure talking about discourses of futurity and postdigitality. The limitations of his cyberutopian neoliberalism however are clearly evidenced in Shaping Things. While his rhetoric around sustainability is interesting, his arguments about heritage and our descendants are undermined by his lack of concern for social justice – either now or in the speculative futures he presents.